The Sex-Positive Legacy of Mae West – Becca Warner, Assistant Dramaturg

In 1933, Mae West purred “Why don’t you come up some time and see me?” Into the ear of her co-star Carry Grant in the film adaptation of her hit play ‘Diamond Lil’. The result was instantaneous, and she cemented herself as a household name and one of the most influential women in pop culture of the twentieth century. She was an entrepreneur, writer, actor and real estate agent, with rapier-sharp wit. You might just have known her for her good looks and seductive stage persona, so what’s all the fuss about, and why did we put West in our play about capitalism, education and philosophical battles? 

Well, for that I’ll take you right back to the beginning of West’s career. She began working in the business at the age of eight and spent the next ten years of her live on the Vaudeville circuit. Even in her teenage years she was shaking things up, causing a stampede when she performed a dance move she called her ‘wriggles act’. From that day on, she continued to hone her character, which you may recognize from her films – the Mae West we know oozes sex appeal and speaks in double entendre, commanding the attention from a room with her charisma.  

Mae West constantly rebelled against the establishment, starting with a play she wrote in 1926 about a prostitute with a heart of gold that featured her as the main protagonist. When coming up with a name, she used the most inflammatory word she could get away with: ‘Sex’. Despite scathing reviews and that Broadway was in a commercial slump at the time, she attracted a massive audience and was eventually arrested for corrupting the morals of youth. 

After that, she continued to play characters who were sexually confident and open on the stage and screen, and ‘She Done Him Wrong’ was a massive hit, followed up by ‘I’m no Angel’ and many more. She became one of the richest women in America due to her intimate knowledge of all her finances and real-estate empire. It is an amazing thing that she had such success in a time where the catholic church was so influential in media censorship, and that she so openly flouted their restrictive beliefs about morality and sexuality for women. It was due to Mae in part that the Hays Code was brought about, forbidding amorous acts on screen and the punishment of characters that engaged in sexually promiscuous or violent behaviour. Despite how damaging this was to her career and how restricted she had to become in terms of how she could act onscreen to get around the censors, she persevered and never changed how she acted for anyone.  

So why is she the perfect inspiration for Anti-Thesis? In our adaptation, Anti-Thesis goes against anything Thesis says and refuses to engage him in proper debate, instead frustrating him with her anarchic, non-rational retorts. With West as an example of how women could engage with their sexuality without shame, she opened up the way for us to shape new realities for ourselves and re-imagine what a sex-positive womanhood could look like. Likewise, Anti-Thesis does not offer clear solutions but exists to shake things up, to ask questions, to rebel for the sake of rebellion because the established order isn’t cutting it. Anti-Thesis and West won’t be censored by restrictive elitist ideas about how an academic thinker should talk or act. They are anarchy in its purest form, and seductive in their ideas; an example of the kind of personality politics that capture our attention with bold statements and charisma rather than well thought-out arguments. Whether West set out to change the world or not, she did it just by existing and refusing to compromise on her personal freedoms, and that is the crux of Anti-Thesis’ world view. 

Published by Kara Reilly

Kara Reilly is an author, editor, theatre historian, director, and dramaturg.

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